A Name That Lives in Infamy
Like a surreal scene from some cheap horror flick, masked men in black hold down a struggling, helpless victim as their leader slowly cuts his throat with a knife, then proudly displays the severed head for all to see. But this was no movie--it was the all-too-real, videotaped murder of American contractor Nicholas Berg in 2004. The man wielding the knife was the chief of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, who met his fate at the wrong end of two 500-pound U.S. bombs last week.
Even in the bloody world of jihadist terrorism, Zarqawi stood out for his barbarism. "Over the past several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women, and children on his hands," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The list of attacks claimed by Zarqawi is long and gruesome. His suicide bombers in Iraq have plowed into marketplaces and funeral processions and crept into mosques and bus stations, killing hundreds of innocents. His 2003 truck bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad took the life of its top envoy and drove the U.N. out of Iraq. A triple bombing last year at three hotels in Jordan's capital murdered 60, including members of a wedding party. Zarqawi's killers are credited with assassinations and beheadings of victims from a half-dozen countries. As a result of all the carnage, Zarqawi became the most wanted man in Iraq, with a $25 million bounty on his head. Central to his strategy was fomenting a civil war between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities. So bloody was his group's rampage against the Shiites that it brought criticism from Sunni imams and even Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2.
Thug. Born Ahmad Fadhil al-Khalaylah in 1966, Zarqawi was part of a large family in Jordan's dusty industrial city of Zarqa, whose name he would eventually adopt as his own. The young man earned a reputation as a violent, hard-drinking street thug. Stocky, intense, and willful, in 1989 he joined thousands of other foreigners to wage jihad in Afghanistan. Imbued with Islamist fervor, on his return to Jordan he soon earned a 15-year prison term for possession of hand grenades.
It was in prison that Zarqawi came of age, displaying a canny knack for leadership and organizing. Granted amnesty in 1999, he left again for Afghanistan, where he opted not to join al Qaeda but to set up his own training camp in Herat, near the Iranian border. The once crude Zarqawi grew increasingly polished and worldly as hundreds of jihadists passed through his camp, providing him a worldwide network that paralleled that of al Qaeda. After 9/11, Zarqawi nearly died in a U.S. airstrike and fled to Iran; then, as the invasion of Iraq loomed, he slipped into that country and set up his own network.
To help justify its intervention in Iraq, the Bush administration cited Zarqawi's presence there as evidence of ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. But Zarqawi remained at loggerheads with al Qaeda and had little in common with Saddam's secular regime, analysts now agree. Ironically, it was the U.S. invasion that prompted Zarqawi to formally link up with bin Laden, changing his group's name in 2004 to al Qaeda in Iraq. It was a marriage of convenience, with an increasingly isolated bin Laden holed up along the Afghan-Pakistani border, able to take credit for actions in Iraq, and Zarqawi able to claim leadership of the world's frontline jihad struggle. "In many ways," says Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism analyst at the Congressional Research Service, "he showed that al Qaeda still had life after Afghanistan."
Zarqawi's lasting legacy may be his role as lightning rod to the global jihad movement. Much as they did a generation earlier in Afghanistan, hundreds of foreign fighters from across the Muslim world have descended on Iraq to wage holy war against those they see as infidel invaders. Although Zarqawi is history, few experts believe the flow of jihadists into Iraq will cease. Worse, they warn, these new foreign legionnaires are gaining skills in urban war fighting and terrorism--skills they will take with them when they return home.
This story appears in the June 19, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.